The Seduction of Binary Thinking

by Mike Kuhn

“Perhaps what is outside is also somehow inside, what is alien also intimate.“ (Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction)[1]

“There are two kinds of people in the world…”  That’s the opener.  Then a clever, self-appointed guru proceeds to divide the entire population of the world (7.4 billion by the way) into two distinct categories.  The dividing lines could fall at any number of angles depending on the speaker’s point of view—liberals and conservatives, spenders and wasters, gay and straight, embracers and homophobes, blue-collar and white-collar, God-fearers and God-haters, introverts and extroverts, decent citizens and riff-raff, believers and non-believers, righteous and sinners, right and left, haves and have-nots, collectivists and individualists and the list goes on ad nauseam.

It’s tricky though, isn’t it?  Our minds want to categorize—to put people and ideas under descriptive titles to help us understand.  Perhaps it arises from our need to find mental rest.  Life is confusing and the inter-connectedness of our world leaves us dizzy and disoriented.  The categories, the philosophies, the worldviews, all seem to keep multiplying.  Can someone simplify, please?!  And so, a label is produced, a title, a category, not always negative, by the way. Nevertheless, the categories tend to become inflexible and pre-define the “other” obviating the need to really listen.

One theologian protests that binary, hostile images are useful to excuse (“we are not to blame”), stabilize (“a common enemy reinforces togetherness”) and polarize (“He who is not for us is against us”).[2] The tendency to focus our fears and tensions on a scapegoat has been a recurrent theme of history.[3]  Though our sound-bite laden culture continually serves it up for us, “friend-foe” thinking is neither intellectually satisfying nor honest.

An obvious case in point is the US presidential primaries. If you happen to be tuned in to that, just listen to the rhetoric for ten minutes and count the number of binary categories you hear.  And these are leaders!  No wonder civil discourse is a lost art!

I suppose that most readers recognize the binary divisions we insert between various groupings of human beings are inadequate and unsatisfactory.  Intellectuals like to think in terms of a spectrum.  That’s better, right?  I mean, at least we’re resisting lumping people into a pre-defined category.  I sometimes wonder if plotting people on a spectrum is just the intellectual’s sophisticated approach to binary thinking.  All we’ve done is expand the categories, really.  But we’ve still neatly categorized everyone using our labels, our titles, our ‘stereotypes’ which is useful because, after we’ve done that, we can stop listening.  We now know who those people are.

Because I fit the category of “believer”—a religious person, allow me to engage in a little self-critique of my group.

Recently I’ve had some association with Christians of the Eastern Orthodox variety (is that a label?).  Anyway, I recently noticed their irritation, justifiably so, as they picked up on Evangelical “insider” language—code words.  So the Eastern Orthodox Christian begins to understand that Evangelicals refer to Christians in two distinct categories: believers and unbelievers.  Predictably, the Eastern Orthodox Christian is offended to discover that she doesn’t fit the “believer” category.  Uh-oh.  This is a little embarrassing!  But she is a Christian—just a different kind.  Really?  Which kind is that?

Our binary categories only work when we’re among our kind.  In other words, binary categories are very good at erecting walls that divide or blowing up bridges that connect.  So why keep them?  I guess they enable us to talk to each other…inside our group, but not to anyone else.

Someone may rightly point out that the Bible is a book replete with binary categories: dark and light, the broad and narrow way, truth and lies, life and death, Jew and Gentile, etc.  Yes.  I’ve noticed that too and thought about it a great deal.

I recently spoke on the Biblical character Ruth.  You may recall that she hailed from Moab.  The Moabites were considered staunch enemies of Israel having failed to aid them on their Exodus journey and also having sought to curse them through the prophet Balaam.  In fact, the Bible is very clear that no Moabite is to enter the assembly of Israel…ever![4]  Now that’s binary—insiders and outsiders, right?

And yet Ruth gets in!  She graciously inserts herself into the monarchical line of no less than King David.  Amazing!  How did that happen?  A few commentaries suggest that Ruth was exempted from the prohibition to enter the assembly of Israel as she was a woman, not a male warrior (binary categories again).[5]  Ridiculous.  Don’t forget that Israel was commanded not to inter-marry with the surrounding nations.  There’s no way around it.  Ruth gets an exception clause.  In a story filled with Old Testament grace (khesed), Ruth is soundly converted and integrated into the family.  That’s one example where the binary categories break down, right in the pages of the Bible.

But there are others.  Jesus says the way is narrow and few find it.  Yet John’s vision displays a multitude that no one can number before the throne, worshipping the Lamb.  Paul declares that we are justified by grace alone through faith but James asks “can faith alone save us?” (Yes.  I am aware that the two are not contradictory.)  Jesus declares he was “sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” but also lauds a Roman soldier, “I have not found faith like this, no, not in Israel” and delights to chat with a Samaritan adulteress “The fields are white unto harvest” and “I have food you know not of.”  What is sometimes cited as Jesus’ classic binary statement “he who is not against us is for us,” in the context, urges the disciples to inclusive acceptance of someone outside their group.

One of the commentaries I read on Ruth didn’t dodge the difficulty.  The author said that the Bible is a vast and varied book and sometimes the Bible enters into dialogue with itself.  I like that.  The Bible has some hard and fast categories.  Sure.  But grace often breaks through.  The categories sometimes dissipate as God interacts with wayward humanity in love.  The book is a love-library (not a rulebook) and reading it means attentively entering into the whole dialogue.

That doesn’t mean, by the way, that we’re abandoning truth.  I’m not suggesting that we deny the reality of good and evil.  I am suggesting that evil and good indwell every human heart.  The binaries are within us.  What is outside is also inside.  As a Christ-follower, I am constantly made aware of my own evil and the fact that getting free of it is not dependent on a philosophy or worldview.  It is dependent on a Person who received me with the love of adoption and embrace despite the evil that so plagues me.  I am asking that we merely extend that same love and embrace to those who see the world differently than we.  The one who is forgiven much loves much.[6]

So even though the Bible deals in binary categories, I think its wisdom shows us that we need to move beyond them…for the love of Christ.

So the next time you find yourself chatting with a “conservative, imperialist, homophobic, capitalist, Democrat, misogynist” or any of those other stereotypical categories, resist the urge to label.  I’ll wager that the reflex to do so will make you slow to speak and quick to listen.  And if you happen to be chatting with me, you have my permission to remind me to do the same.

_____________________

[1]The complete citation is found here.

[2]Küng, H. (2007). Islam : Past, Present and Future. Oxford: Oneworld, pg. 4.

[3] See Father Robert Barron’s interesting you tube video commentary on “The Hunger Games” where he discusses this “scapegoating” tendency observed by René Girard, the French literary critic here.

[4] See Deut 23:3-6

[5] Eskenazi, T. C., & Frymer-Kensky, T. (2011). The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth (First edition, p. xlv). Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society.

[6] See Jesus’ reception of a sinful woman followed by his stunning parable on forgiveness in Luke 7:36-50

7 thoughts on “The Seduction of Binary Thinking

  1. Dear Mr Kuhn , I have a couple of thoughts reading your article. English is not my first language neither is intellectualism. So please don`t be a very harsh critic. Speaking about intellectuals, being more lenient then others, that is probably true , but they also leave more questions then answers behind. That`s not a problem either because those non-intellectuals will sort it out, right? You seem to dislike bickering . So do I. But things have to fall somewhere in this world. Somebody has to become the president of the USA. I`m glad I don`t have decide that one. I have the luxury to analyze those who choose that person.
    About Ruth and Rahab and the handful of Old Testament proselytes, well they became converted even before they actually joined the nation of Israel. Ruth said that Naomi`s God will be her God as well. She probably made that decision watching Naomi`s family live in that foreign land, and when she had to make a choice , she was ready. Naomi even tried to send her back. How many of us would have the courage to tell a seeker to go back into the world. It was grace that reached all of us, me too. But it took a hard fought decision to appropriating that grace . While the arms of God are open , and we should not stand in the way, everybody has to decide for themselves . Now that decision can take a long time to happen , and we should encourage that decision , that person will know if he/she belongs to Christ or not. The person who does not have the Christ`s Holy Spirit does not belong to HIm. . Romans 8:9. Serious words. I do agree with you that we should look at ourselves fist and foremost. But in Revelation Jesus puts the burden of critical viewing of the church members on the angel of the church. I don`t have to show you this with verses, you know the Scriptures, better then I do.
    I prayerfully appreciate the work you are doing , spending your life on the work of God.

    • Thank-you, Anna.
      I appreciate your comment and no need to apologize for your English, which is very good.
      I agree with you that Ruth was converted and that she probably made that decision through the good influence of Naomi’s family in Moab. It is interesting to me that though God commanded the Israelites not to intermarry with other nations, yet he used Naomi’s family to preserve the kingly line of David and ultimately the messianic line of Jesus.
      Thanks for your point about Revelation and the angel of the church.
      I’m glad you commented on the blog, Anna. It’s gratifying to know that people are reading it and it is challenging their thoughts.
      Mike

  2. Dear Joe Hanna,

    Thank-you for your response to the blog. I appreciated your zeal for the Gospel as well as some of the points you made, especially the first one about creating a new binary—pro-binary and anti-binary. That’s funny and it did occur to me while I was writing the blog. Actually, though I hope that there is at least a third category which is “recovering binary thinkers” because I fit into that category!

    Your comments give me incentive to try to clarify what I am saying. I think there are two important points which are intimately related.

    First, I am urging us to be humble in the way we think. I am not saying that binaries do not exist. If you recall, I said at the end of the blog that I am not abandoning truth. Good and evil, truth and falsehood are realities. My concern is that we externalize these realities. In other words, we don’t apply them to ourselves. Good and evil, truth and falsehood, sin and righteousness are inside all of us. For that reason, we should be careful before calling it out in others. As Jesus said, we should remove the plank from our own eye before attempting to remove the speck from our brother’s eye or “judge not that you be not judged”. This is humility of heart and mind.

    Secondly, I am urging us to be humble in the way we talk. You are right that some categories and labels are helpful. In fact, we all self-identify through certain labels and categories. It’s one thing when we put ourselves in a category. It’s quite another when someone tries to put a label on us that we do not accept. So my blog concerns public discourse—the way we talk. I am urging the reader to be careful not to lump people into one or two categories. I hope this will enable us to listen better to people which will also help us understand how to share our truth-claims (e.g. the Gospel) with them. This is humility in speech and it grows out of humility of heart.

    Finally, in your response you suggest that I have “zero regard for the Bible.” I’ve mulled that over quite a bit. Now, you don’t know me and this public forum is not the place for introductions. But it may be possible that you said that about someone who has committed his entire life to teaching and preaching the Bible…someone who left his homeland and family seeking to bring the message of the Bible to those who have little opportunity to hear it. Wouldn’t you agree that to put that label on such a person would be unfair? Frankly, to do so would be to misjudge that person or misunderstand his words. So, this part of your response is actually an example of what I am referring to. Putting labels on others, labels they don’t accept, closes doors of communication from both sides—both the one who labels and the one who is labeled. It makes it really hard to share our lives, our faith and the truth we love with people if we keep closing the doors of communication. Much of our binary language actually closes doors.

    Thanks, Joe Hanna.
    Mike

    • Dear Mike,
      Thank you for responding to my comment on your blog and for clarifying your point of view!
      I never said that you believe that binaries don’t exist; I said that you are anti-binary. I love the term you used “externalize”. I believe that we both agree that we shouldn’t externalize the evil in us and willingly offend people. However, are we going to completely eliminate binaries? And if we don’t label ourselves with labels that the Bible says are good such as being a believer, being saved, etc and don’t externalize those qualities, how can we tell people what we believe in? If we’re not going to be completely transparent with from the beginning when winning souls to Christ, and they come to our church and see that we’re using those labels, they’ll say, “Hey, is that what you call me behind my back?!” So the point is I don’t believe that those words should be secretive and I don’t believe that we should stop using them in the church. I believe that they should be used more often and revive this terminology instead of bringing it to extinction.
      My concern about being humble in our approach is reaching a point where we’re too humble that we shy away or compromise the word of God or get embarrassed whenever we use biblical terms. God’s word is powerful and some people will find it offending, but blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in him. We’re always going to speak the truth in love but many people are always going to label us in a way that we don’t like; but should we seek to please them? Galatians 1:10.
      I agree that of course we shouldn’t judge. But I just would like to point out that this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t reprove and rebuke because we’re actually commanded to do so. And the bible warns us in 2 Timothy 4:2-3 about the time when people will not endure sound doctrine and have itching ears.
      I’m sure you (personally) don’t have zero regard to the Bible, however, the paragraph you wrote implies that. Please read it again. I believe that the Bible is correct on all subjects; it’s the word of God! And that’s my approach to the Bible. I don’t approach the Bible to correct it but rather to be corrected by it. And I don’t pick and choose what I think works best for me and makes me accepted by men. If someone tells me the Bible is in error because it condones slavery, I’m not going to panic and say, “Oh, you’re right; slavery is wrong. I think wisdom shows us that we need to move beyond that.” No! I’m going to say, “Wait a minute, let me see what the Bible says about slavery. If the Bible condones slavery then I condone slavery!” People would say I blindly believe the Bible. Yes! I blindly believe the Bible; it’s called faith. The Bible is my standard for measuring things. Shall I go with my own wisdom or with the word of God? 1 Corinthians 3:19.
      God bless!
      Joe

      • Hi again, Joe.

        I wanted to say thanks for your response and for interacting with my article.

        On the one hand, I admire your commitment to Scripture, but I have to say I think it is somewhat misguided. I don’t think that ‘believing the Bible’ equates to condoning slavery! Is that what you’re suggesting? Nor do I think faith is blind belief. In fact, that’s a classic mistaken understanding of faith. Faith always seeks to understand.

        At any rate, I don’t think this medium is a good place to carry on the conversation, but if you would be interested to talk more, I’m open to that. You can always get in touch with me through ABTS. I assume you live in Lebanon.

        Thanks again for interacting and questioning.

        Mike

      • Thanks Mike! I’m so happy we’re exchanging thoughts! I wish more people could join and share their thoughts too as we’ve tackled some very important topics :))

        My point is that I believe the Bible is always right on all subjects and I ought to go with what the
        Bible says all the time and form my opinion based on what the Bible teaches even if “wisdom” tells me it’s wrong or “over the top”. Which wisdom should I go with? Should I go with man’s wisdom and form my opinion based on what’s “politically correct” or the Bible’s wisdom i.e. the word of God?

        I should’ve been more specific/ careful regarding the slavery example. I didn’t want to open a can of worms. But I do believe that God allowed some form of slavery back in the Old Testament when, for example, people couldn’t pay their debts so they had to work it off. So the bigger the debt, the longer and harder it takes to work it off. Some people today use this as one of the examples to accuse the Bible of slavery slavery today (because prison is always a better solution). So instead of agreeing, my reaction would be to check the Bible first; if it really condones slavery (in whatever form) then I agree with it because the Bible is always right.

        I said that I blindly believe the Bible as a conjunction with what I’ve said earlier regarding the Bible being always right. Faith tries to seek to understand but sometimes there are things that we can’t understand and yet continue to believe in and strengthen our faith in. For instance, can anybody understand how God almighty, the creator of the Universe, all knowing, all powerful, how could He become a human being and be born as a baby and go through the whole process of life (learn how to walk, talk, go through struggles of life) and increase in wisdom and stature? How can Jesus be 100% God and 100% man? It’s hard to even wrap our minds around it but we believe it by faith. It’s what the Bible says.

        Thank you and God bless.

  3. Nice article, by I completely disagree with a lot of what you wrote for so many reasons; some of them are mentioned below. Please read & contemplate (1 Thessalonians 5:21):
    1. By being “anti-binary divisions” you’re already setting up a new binary division where people who are “pro-binary divisions” are on the opposite side.
    2. Labels are extremely important to help us understand people’s thoughts and ideas and where do they come from on certain topics. Labels are important everywhere and that’s why the Bible emphasizes them. We label our church as “Baptist” because we want to make it clear for people who we are and where we stand on issues of faith among other denominations. Just imagine walking into the food section in the supermarket and finding that everything is labeled “food”.
    3. Why should we be embarrassed when using terms like “believers” “saved” “non-believers” etc?? Mark 8:38 (KJV) these are biblical terms rather than “code words”. And we ought to be teaching them to people in the hope that we can win them to Christ instead of worrying whether or not someone gets offended! People get offended all the time! Do you think while Jesus is preaching he would pause and think whether what he’s going to say will offend people?
    4. When Jesus sends out the apostles two by two in Mark 16 (KJV) to preach the gospel, did he tell them, “Go ye into only your binary category and preach the gospel inside your group but not to anyone else?” NO!! He said, “Go ye into ALL THE WORLD and preach the gospel to EVERY CREATURE.” So when you say “our binary categories only work when we’re among our kind.” that’s a contradiction for what the Bible teaches. If we focus more on winning souls to Christ we won’t be worrying about building walls that divide. Jesus himself said he’s come to divide. Luke 12:51 (KJV)
    5. What is more important in the sight of God, to love and embrace all people or to win them to Christ? We can love everybody and yet fail to win them to the LORD only because we’re afraid that we might offend them (this actually proves that we didn’t love them in the first place by not giving them the gospel and letting them go to hell). Reaching out to every creature and winning people to Christ is the ultimate testimony of our love and embrace.
    6. If I want to paraphrase the paragraph before the last, it would look something like this: “The Bible teaches about labels and divisions. However, I have ZERO regard to what the Bible teaches and I will go with what I think is wise because that’s how I see it.”
    7. We shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed of using God’s words! If God be for us, who can be against us. God’s word is meant to be powerful! Hebrews 4:12 (KJV). And if someone gets offended, well, it’s their loss.

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